Even as lawsuits seeking to keep a private women’s college open play out in the courts, the school’s professors are shutting down offices and moving off campus. Not without a fight: A national faculty group criticized the leadership of Sweet Briar College last week, for acting secretively before abruptly announcing the college would close this summer.
The school’s president, James F. Jones, responded to the American Association of University Professors, saying it wasn’t accurate to say the board acted with no warning and without faculty participation. He said that faculty leaders were told that the school was in dire financial straits shortly before the final board vote (although the possibility of closure was not mentioned) and that the school has worked with professors to help them find new jobs, and that it hopes to provide severance pay, among other efforts. He noted that college officials have written reference letters, helped some buy laptops to assist with job searches, placed calls, and helped transfer grants.
Many Sweet Briar professors bristled at that letter; they wrote one of their own, disputing several of the president’s points.
And one professor wrote his own personal response, to those working to save the school — crucial court hearings are set for next week — and to anyone listening. His response is below.
Born and raised in New Orleans, John Gregory Brown is the author of the novels ‘Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery’; ‘The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur’; and ‘Audubon’s Watch.’ His fourth novel, “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere,” will be published by Little, Brown in 2016. His honors include a Lyndhurst Prize, the Lillian Smith Award, the John Steinbeck Award, and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Book of the Year Award. He is the Julia Jackson Nichols Professor of English at Sweet Briar College and lives in Virginia. He and his wife, the novelist Carrie Brown, have three children. He wrote:
In less than two weeks, most of Sweet Briar College’s employees will lose their jobs.
Many have found new jobs; many others have not. And many of those who have found new jobs have taken them at considerable expense, both financial and emotional. Some will earn less money; some will have to travel greater distances to and from work; some will have little job security or seniority; some will be separated from their families. All will have lost the reward of working in a community that they knew well and loved and served for many years.
Faculty have had to give up tenure; they have had to accept one-year positions with no future or teaching positions with no time for the research or scholarship or creative endeavors upon which they have fashioned their lives and careers.
They will have to move, as my wife Carrie and I will move, from higher education to secondary schools, from one part of the country to another.
They will be forced to leave spouses and partners who have had to accept jobs elsewhere.
They will be forced to leave their homes, many with no guarantee when or if they will be able to sell them.
All of us who have accepted these new jobs have done so not because we don’t want the college to be saved, not because we do not possess the fire and commitment of our colleagues fighting to save Sweet Briar, not because we wouldn’t have wanted to be a part of a revived and re-imagined college with leaders worthy of our confidence and trust.
We are leaving because we had no choice, because we need jobs and we have no jobs. We have financial responsibilities: bills to pay, aging parents and children to care for, tuition to provide, health care insurance to acquire.
We have lives that we must reconstruct.
I sincerely hope that Sweet Briar College will remain open and that its leaders, whoever they may be, and its supporters – all those thousands of devoted and energetic and visionary alumnae – will recognize that there is a college worth saving only because of the employees who spent their careers attending to the students and the buildings and the grounds and the countless tasks that are a necessary part of a college’s operations.
The employees have left – we have left – without the promise of severance, without a single extra day’s pay to cushion the blow, without a penny’s compensation for all we have lost and with tremendous expenses ahead of us.
I sincerely hope that we will all soon be able to celebrate an important victory – that the college has been saved, that current students will have the opportunity to return, that future students will be able to pursue their educations on this beautiful campus.
But the victory will be a hollow one if those who save the college care only for those who stay and not for those who have had to leave.